Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Game Review - Magic: Duels of the Planeswalkers 2015 (XBLA, 2014)

Let's be honest: Magic: The Gathering is an expensive hobby.  Competitive decks can cost $200+, and even acquiring the collection to build casual decks can run into the triple digits.  The cost combined with the expansive (and continually growing) set of rules and interactions can be a daunting obstacle to anyone interested in the game.

Over the past few years, the annual update of Duels of the Planeswalkers has served as an excellent, low-cost introduction to the game.  For about $15 you've been able to get a nice little Magic package: sleek stand-alone games with nice tutorials, several interesting pre-constructed decks, and a few hundred hand-picked cards (of more than ten thousand from Magic's history) that showcase some of the game's more popular mechanics.

Historically, most Magic veterans would point interested newcomers to the most recent iteration of Duels of the Planeswalkers to get their feet wet.

That may not be such a great idea this year.

DotP 2015 takes a big step forward with its fully customizable deck building, but it takes a couple colossal steps back in other ways - terrible starting decks raise the barrier for entry for new players, and fewer game modes mean advanced players won't find nearly as much content as previous versions.

Let's start at the beginning:

When you first start the game, you'll be lead directly into a tutorial.  This introduction to Magic is essentially an interactive lecture, and it's about as good a lesson on the basics as you're going to get unless you sit down and talk to a veteran player.  For that purpose, DotP is still unparalleled.

After covering the basic mechanics, the game lets you choose your starting deck.  Veteran planeswalkers will recognize the choices as each of Ravnica's guilds, but their basic strategies are also described in plain English.  Again, it's a good way to ease newer players into this complicated game.

But that's where it all falls apart.  The game is ultimately built around unlocking new cards to improve your decks as you progress, so the starting decks are particularly weak.  The final tutorial duel, which is a straight-up game against an AI-controlled deck letting you see the rules in action, is hard.  The AI's deck is just better than yours, and I could only progress into the rest of the game (I couldn't figure out any way to skip this tutorial battle) after reducing the difficulty to the lowest setting and retrying until my opponent had terrible draws.  It's an absolutely unreasonable barrier to enter the majority of the game.

Things only get marginally better from there.  The single-player portion of the game consists of a sequence of themed enemy decks covering some of Magic's iconic locations and characters.  After each win, you'll be rewarded with a virtual booster pack, which will add a handful of new cards to your collection.

Those duels will be a struggle until you get a fair number of new cards, though.  It's the same problem as in the tutorial - your starting deck is weaker than the decks you'll face, which means you'll need to win through superior luck in the first several matches of the game.  It gets better as you go along, but it's certainly an uphill battle.

Once you've unlocked a good fraction of the nearly 1,000 cards (including copies) available in-game, you'll find a pretty nice Magic constructed format awaiting.  With fully customizable deck building, your collection allows for a wide variety of archetypes.  It seems like there are a number of solid decks, so I imagine the multiplayer side will develop an interesting metagame.  Taking your deck online to battle other mages is definitely the highlight of the game, and with the customization available, it's a ton of fun.

However, I imagine that this system will be tough for new players.  In previous DotP titles, the available decks were more or less at the same power level, with only relatively minor modifications being possible.  Here, it's entirely on you to put together a decent deck to be competitive because the starting decks are terrible.  If you haven't already developed rudimentary deck building skills, you're not going to get a whole lot of help from the game.

I suspect the deck building feature makes this version of DotP much less accessible newbies, which is exactly the opposite of what DotP has historically been about.

Given the emphasis on deck building, I would have expected the process of building a deck to be a lot smoother.  The deck builder uses the same format as previous games, showing available cards in one row and the cards included in your deck on another.  You can apply some filters that make things more manageable, but you're still only able to see a handful of cards on the screen at a time, so it's hard to get a holistic picture of the deck you've thrown together.  Add the sluggishness of the whole process (scrolling through the cards can be tedious) and the process of building your deck is a bit of a chore.

Another downside deals with the cards you can use in deck building.  To start, many of the cards you'll play against in the single-player game aren't available, so you'll see some cool ideas that you'll never be able to use yourself.  There are also a number of "premium" cards that can only be unlocked through microtransactions giving you premium booster packs.  Those cards aren't oppressively powerful by any means, but it's annoying not to be able to access all the cards just for the price of admission.

The menu system is also abysmal.  Loading times are long, and important features are buried in several layers of menus.  The worst offender is without a doubt changing your active deck: instead of being able to change your deck while in a multiplayer lobby (you know, if you decide you want to try one of the other decks you've put together), you have to back out to the main menu, enter the "deck equipping" menu, choose the deck you want, back out to the main menu, and re-enter your multiplayer lobby.  It's an arduous task for doing something that should have been very simple, and it's just the most egregious example of poor design.

Another frustrating point is the surprising lack of game modes.  If you want to play DotP 2015, you're stuck playing duels and free-for-alls.  There are no casual formats like two-headed giant or archenemy like in previous iterations of the DotP franchise.  They even omitted the challenge mode from previous games that gave you a game scenario and asked you to find a way to win on your next turn.  Those challenges were cool Magic puzzles, but there's nothing like that here.

In the end, you get a fantastic explanation of Magic's basics and a frustrating process for unlocking cards that eventually leads to a thoroughly enjoyable multiplayer game.  But this fully-customizable deck building came at a significant cost, as many previous features of the series have been omitted, and newer planeswalkers may find the barrier to entry to be a little too high.

As a result, I actually think that this year's Duels of the Planeswalkers is better suited to regular Magic players.  If you're already familiar with Magic and you can trudge through the tedium of the single-player features, this is a decent online Magic game with a pseudo-Standard format.  If you're looking for a way to introduce a friend to the game, however, you're much better off looking to previous versions.

My Rating: 6/10 - decent.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Achievement Guide - Inherit the Earth in Magic: Duels of the Planeswalkers 2015

Inherit the Earth in Duels of the Planeswalkers 2015.

To earn this achievement, you need to use Mentor of the Meek's ability to draw 3 or more cards in a single turn.

Mentor of the Meek's ability triggers any time you get a new small creature: "Whenever another creature with power 2 or less enters the battlefield under your control, you may pay 1.  If you do, draw a card."  We just need to have lots of little dudes enter the battlefield once the Mentor is in play to get this one!

I'll provide the deck list that I used, but first I'll outline some basic strategic considerations so that you have an idea of why certain things are included, both to help you use that deck and to allow you to make changes as needed if you're finding that it doesn't quite work for you.

Deck Strategy:

A single-colored deck eliminates any concerns about having the right kinds of lands and generally makes life a lot simpler and more consistent.  Seeing that the Mentor is white, a mono-white is the way to go.

As you might imagine, the Mentor's ability can easily get prohibitively expensive.  You'll have to spend three mana drawing cards, leaving less mana to actually cast those creature spells.

As such, in addition to the Mentor, we want lots of cheap ways of making little weenies to trigger his ability.  Fortunately, white has a bunch of 1-costing creatures in this game.  If you can hold on to three of those while building up to 6 total mana, you're good to unload them all at once to nab the achievement.  Don't overlook spells like Raise the Alarm, which also generate creatures for one mana each (essentially).

The Convoke mechanic is a nice way around the cost problem, too, as your creatures (including Mentor of the Meek himself!) can allow you to cast some spells.  Triplicate Spirits is perhaps the best spell for this task, as it already creates three little spirits to trigger your Mentor.  If you can get six creatures in play, you'll only need three open mana to draw your cards.

As always, we'll want to devote some of our resources to staying alive.  I'm partial to straight kill spells like Divine Verdict.  Resolute Archangel is also very nice for prolonging your life, as it can negate all the damage you take over several turns.  Since we're looking to make tons of dudes anyway, Seraph of the Masses is excellent on defense.

Deck List:

After each card name, I'll list the area that you can find that particular card (i.e., if you don't have the listed number of copies, which plane you should explore to earn more).

1 Elite Vanguard (Shandalar)
4 Selfless Cathar (Innistrad)
2 Trained Caracal (Ravnica)
2 Loyal Pegasus (Theros)

2 Ajani's Pridemate (Theros)
2 Lone Missionary (Zendikar)
3 Raise the Alarm (Shandalar)
1 Brimaz, King of Oreskos (Theros)

2 Mentor of the Meek (Innistrad)
1 Banisher Priest (Zendikar)
4 Attended Knight (Shandalar)
2 Divine Verdict (Theros)

3 Angelic Edict (Ravnica)
2 Triplicate Spirits (Zendikar)
1 Resolute Archangel (Innistrad)
3 Seraph of the Masses (Innistrad)

24 Plains


Because there are only two copies of Mentor of the Meek in the game, the trickiest part about this achievement is surviving long enough to draw a copy.  If you're patient, you can cast every creature spell you draw to hold the line until you draw the Mentor, at which point you just sandbag creatures until you can make three enter the battlefield in the same turn.  It's definitely doable, but it might take well over 20 turns to make it happen.

An alternative is to restart your duel until you have the Mentor, a couple cheap creatures, and a few lands in your opening hand.  This plan is a little bit more dangerous, as you won't be able to defend yourself during the first few turns of the game, but it'll get you there a lot more quickly if it works.

This deck obviously works best against creature-heavy decks without many removal spells.  I tried it in a few different cases and it seemed to work pretty well, so you can reasonably expect to win with this deck while trying to unlock more cards.  It does work particularly well against the "Tangled Growth" encounter on Zendikar, as 6-10 weenies are usually enough to hold the AI's forces back.

Let me know if you have other insights into earning this achievement!

Achievement Guide - Defensive Line in Magic: Duels of the Planeswalkers 2015

It's not often that I can come up with procedures for earning video game achievements before a multitude of guides are available online, so I'm excited to share my solutions when possible.  The next few posts will focus on various challenges in Magic: The Gathering -  Duels of the Planeswalkers 2015.

Defensive Line in Duels of the Planeswalkers 2015.

To earn this achievement, you must deal 20 damage with Vent Sentinel in a single game.

Vent Sentinel is a red defender with a unique activated ability - 1R, Tap: Vent Sentinel deals damage to target player equal to the number of creatures with defender you control.  Obviously, the key to dealing 20 damage with Vent Sentinel is to have a bunch of defenders in play, and you probably want to make Vent Sentinel your win condition so you know you're not going to fall a couple points of damage short.

I'll provide the deck list that I used, but first I will outline some basic strategic considerations so that you have an idea of why certain things are included, both to help you use that deck and to allow you to make changes as needed if you're finding that it doesn't quite work for you.

Deck Strategy:

The basic plan is to play a deck with a bunch of defenders and various other ways of keeping yourself alive.  Black and blue are good choices for survival, as both have relatively cheap responses to whatever your opponent may be doing and have a fair number of defenders.

From black, I'm a big fan of removal like Tribute to Hunger for the extra life gain, and from blue, I find counterspells like Dissolve and bounce spells like Voyage's End to be really powerful, in part due to their Scry effects to filter out things you don't want to be drawing.  Extra card draw from blue is also a plus.

With at least three colors involved, you'll also be looking to fix your colors of mana to ensure you don't get stuck with a hand full of uncastable spells.  The Traveler's Amulet artifact is useful in this regard, but green also excels at finding good sources of mana.

As such, I settled on a four-color deck: Red for Vent Sentinel, Black for removal, Blue for counterspells and removal, and green for mana ramp/fixing.  The ramp and fixing are certainly the most important part of the equation, so the deck is a little heavy on Forests to make it more consistent.

Deck List:

After each card name, I'll list the area that you can find that particular card (i.e., if you don't have the listed number of copies, which plane you should explore to earn more).

4 Doorkeeper (Ravnica)
2 Voyage's End (Theros)
1 Dissolve (Theros)
2 Thassa's Bounty (Theros)

3 Tribute to Hunger (Innistrad)
3 Corpse Blockade (Ravnica)
3 Ogre Jailbreaker (Ravnica)

4 Vent Sentinel (Zendikar)

4 Grave Bramble (Innistrad)
4 Cultivate (Theros)

2 Traveler's Amulet (Theros)
3 Gargoyle Sentinel (Innistrad)
1 Avarice Amulet (Theros)
1 Meteorite (Shandalar)

6 Island
4 Swamp
3 Mountain
7 Forest
1 Gruul Guildgate (Ravnica)
1 Simic Guildgate (Ravnica)
1 Golgari Guildgate (Ravnica)


The plan as described above is to survive long enough to get Vent Sentinel in play with 4+ other defenders and start shooting your opponent.  The Avarice Amulet is in there just to help you draw more cards if you don't hit a copy of the Sentinel quickly enough; the Meteorite helps with color problems and can occasionally kill a pesky creature when necessary.

With four colors, it's important to be careful when choosing which lands to tap to cast spells.  Make sure that you're always leaving the lands that you'd need to cast the next spell you want for that turn.

Using this setup, I was able to get the achievement on my first try.  I didn't worry about what deck I was playing against (I used this as an opportunity to unlock some more cards by exploring Zendikar), but it's definitely stronger against more creature-heavy decks.  Stay away from decks that run a lot of spells that will just kill your creatures outright.

Let me know if you have other insights into earning this achievement!

Friday, July 11, 2014

Game Review - Guacamelee! Super Turbo Championship Edition (Xbox 360, 2014)

Originally released for Playstation devices last year, Guacamelee! Super Turbo Championship Edition is an exceptional action platformer.  It manages to combine entertaining fighting mechanics with challenging platforming and exploration, all with an occasional chuckle. It's a fantastic experience.  Here's what you can expect:

Guacamelee puts you in the role of Juan, a farmer in a world that idolizes luchadores. Juan's effort to prevent the abduction of his romantic interest, El Presidente's daughter, leads to his death in the opening scenes of the game.  A mysterious luchador bestows Juan with a magical luchador's mask in the world of the dead, allowing him to chase down the evil skeleton that kidnapped his love (and, you know, return to the world of the living).

At its core, the premise is pretty standard.  The aesthetics, however, are based on Mexican folklore, with heavy emphasis on art styles from things like Dia de los Muertos and a mariachi-inspired soundtrack.  It's an overall style that's generally absent from the gaming world, and it's done very well.

The game also never takes itself too seriously, which is a lot of fun.  There are scenes with ridiculous dialogue or, even better, interesting camera action and other graphical gags, all while incorporating a number of nice references to gaming icons.  It's very entertaining all around.

That overall style is also backed up with incredible gameplay.  On the surface, Guacamelee is just a challenging platformer.  Some sections of the game require precise jumps and timing, and they're among the hardest platforming segments I've played in a long time (maybe even since old-school Mega Man games).

Successfully navigating these sequences is pretty satisfying, too, because the control scheme is nearly flawless.  Clear objectives and responsive inputs make it obvious that poor design is never the reason for your failure; it's all on you.  As such, the game never feels stacked against you.

The combat really seals the deal, though.  Fighting monsters feels like a standard side-scrolling beat 'em up: you'll punch, you'll dodge, and you'll defeat tons of mobs over the course of the game.

However, as you progress, Juan will obtain new combat skills that add complexity to the many monster encounters you'll face.  In fact, these skills will become necessary as enemies develop resistances as the game wears on.  It's a really cool system because it makes the relatively small number of enemy types feel much more diverse as you're forced to dispatch them in specific ways.

Those combat skills also aid in mobility, allowing the platforming challenges to become more complex, too.  And that's what makes Guacamelee so damn entertaining - you'll never encounter the same obstacles twice, either in platforming or combat sequences.  Every room feels new and presents a new challenge, and the difficulty ramps up consistently throughout.

Simply put, Guacamelee's gameplay is some of the best I've ever seen.  Period.

My only complaint on that front is that some of the boss fights aren't that interesting.  I found the first major boss to be significantly harder than any subsequent boss (until the final boss, who offered substantial resistance), so most of the boss fights were a bit of a letdown.  Getting to them was always tons of fun, though.

Suprisingly, there's also a good amount of content.  I finished my first playthrough in 5-6 hours, but there are tons of optional areas to explore and upgrades to find, including 17 challenge rooms and the hardest platforming challenges available.  Everything seems doable from the outset, though, and with some dedication you'll get there.  Still, it can easily take 10+ hours to reach 100% completion.

And then there's hard mode, which unlike a lot of games is a significant increase in difficulty.  Even after mastering the challenge rooms, I had trouble with several fights on hard mode.  It requires deeper strategy and is much less forgiving, so I had to rethink my approach many times.  It was a nice additional challenge.

I'm genuinely impressed that the game not only kept me interested for 15 hours but also felt fresh and exciting the whole time.  That may be more of a comment on the current state of gaming, but either way, Guacamelee is one of the most all-around enjoyable games I've played in the last few years.

My Rating: 10/10 - epic.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Achievement Report - Bean Dive 2014

For the last few years, the True Achievements community has celebrated summer by committing achievement hunter statistical suicide.  Bean Diving, dreamed up by TA member Beanpotter, involves playing every game in your backlog until you pop at least one achievement in each.

The way I see it, there are a couple good reasons for taking the plunge (aside from the community event aspect of it).  First, from an achievement hunting perspective, it makes your achievement stats an accurate representation of all the games you own; it means your completion percentage reflects your full collection.

Second, and I think more importantly, a Bean Dive gives you a taste of all the games in your backlog.  It allows you to discover gems you may have purchased but overlooked.  Past dives have gotten me really excited about some of the games I kept putting off.  I take it as an opportunity to see what games I should be playing.

My Dive
This year, I figure I'll take some notes as I dive and share them with the world.  Here's how it'll go down: I'll list a game, give an approximate amount of time to pop the first achievement, and then brief thoughts on it.  At the end, I'll summarize the ones I'm looking forward to.

Asura's Wrath - 5 minutes - A beautiful game. The first level is a combination of Panzer Dragoon-type gameplay and quick time events.  I think I'll enjoy playing it much more for the ambiance and story than the gameplay, but I'm looking forward to playing this one.

DiRT 3 - 5 minutes - DiRT 3 seems much more streamlined than its predecessor.  Different options aren't as obvious, but I think that might actually make the experience a little less overwhelming.  Should be a fun one.

Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen - 10 minutes - Seems like this one's a pretty decent RPG, though completing the first quest doesn't show much of it off.  I'm excited to come back to it.

Far Cry: Instincts Predator - <5 minutes - I didn't get much of a feel for this one, as I followed the solution on TrueAchievements for popping a simple multiplayer achievement.

Far Cry 2 - 5 minutes - This game seems like it'll just be your typical FPS.  Nothing too exciting here.

FIFA 14 (Win 8) - 10 minutes - I'm not a huge fan of the sport in the first place, but I grabbed this game because it was free (I have to stop doing that...).  It doesn't seem like it'll be a very fun game due to very simplistic yet frustrating controls.

Gotham City Imposters - <5 minutes - The achievement popped right as I booted the game, so I didn't play any of it.  I already have the PC version, though, so I know what it's about.  Seems like it'd be a lot more fun with a consistent group to play with...

Guacamelee! Super Turbo Championship Edition - <5 minutes - The first achievement in this one is trivial, but I played the demo a bit earlier this week.  I'm pretty excited to play this one for real, so it may be the first game I get into post-dive.

Kinectimals Unleashed (Win 8) - Another free game I'll regret starting.  It just seems like it'll be incredibly tedious...

L.A. Noir - <5 minutes - The vehicle achievement can be done as soon as you get control of the character, so I didn't get to experience much here.  I'll have to give it more of a shot later.

Microsoft Sudoku (Win 8) - <5 minutes - It's a basic Sudoku game. What do you expect?

Remember Me - 5 minutes - I'm intrigued.  It's gorgeous, and it seems like it has an awesome story.  Aside from running, there wasn't any gameplay in episode 0, so I can't comment on mechanics, but I think this will be another good one.

Samurai Warriors 2: Xtreme Legends - 2.5 hours - Nope, not a fan.  I'm not sure why I picked this up in the first place years ago, as I've never really liked the "kill hundreds of mooks with sweeping attacks" genre.  It's basically a button masher, and as such it's probably one of the last games from this dive that I'll play, if I ever get around to it.

Sanctum 2 - 5 minutes - I like this FPS-tower defense hybrid.  This game may be one of the first I go back to after the dive.

Saints Row 2 - 1 hour - I'm losing interest in GTA-style games.  Maybe it's just an age or maturity thing, but this one didn't appeal to me too much.

Saints Row: The Third - 5 minutes - This one seems much better.  I think it's finally at the level of absurdity that it's essentially mocking itself and the sandbox crime genre.  Smoother control scheme, too.  Seems like a good one.

Spectral Force 3: Innocent Rage - 5.5 hours (I already logged 4 hours, though, so it wasn't that bad) - It's a turn-based strategy RPG, in the vein of classics like Ogre Battle and Fire Emblem.  I like those kinds of games, though this one seems like it's exceptionally complicated.

Super Street Fighter IV - 5 minutes - I'm not a big fan of fighting games, and I've always preferred the ones that are way over-the-top to more competitive ones. This one seems like it'll be a pretty nasty grind for me.  Not looking forward to it.

Tomb Raider: Underworld - 5 minutes - The tutorial wasn't bad, though the camera is pretty frustrating.  Seems like a decent piece of the Tomb Raider marathon that I'll probably do at some point.

Viking: Battle for Asgard - 20 minutes - This game made a bad impression because I couldn't figure out where to go right at the start.  It seems like it might be an entertaining third-person action game, though.

The Walking Dead: Season 2 - 10 minutes - Sequel to the popular adventure game; seems like more of the same.  But that's not necessarily a bad thing!

21 games and nearly a full day later, my completion percentage has dropped a whopping 3.11%.  I played another game for a couple hours, Dungeon Defenders, but I was still not even half way to the first achievement, so I decided to abandon it.

The Best of the Bunch
Having completed my dive, these are the games I'm most excited to play:

Asura's Wrath
Dragon's Dogma
Remember Me
Sanctum 2
Saints Row: The Third

I hope to review these games as well, so look forward to more detailed thoughts on these games in the coming months!